Ancient Origins of Yule

Recently I was asked to create a small exhibit at the Swedish Cultural Center to illustrate the ancient origins of Scandinavian Christmas traditions. Below are the tidbits I pulled together (only a few of which made it into the display). The objects in the display, owned by the Center, include beautiful weavings and Yule decorations such as a Julbok, a cheese press marked with an “x” to keep away evil, and a Christmas porridge bowl.

Update: There is a fascinating account of Christmas traditions in Sàpmi here, and an exploration along of pagan Yule traditions from a Norwegian perspective here.

Are any of these surprising to you? Do you have any corrections or additions? Please let me know in the comments.

Date of Christmas
For the church’s first three centuries, Christmas wasn’t in December—or on the calendar at all. December 25th already hosted two other festivals: natalis solis invicti (the Roman “birth of the unconquered sun”), and the birthday of Mithras, the “Sun of Righteousness.” The winter solstice, another celebration of the sun, fell within a few days. Roman church leaders decided to take advantage of the popularity of this season when they chose the date to celebrate Christ’s birth, an event that probably occurred in the month of September.

It is spelled gløgg in Norwegian and Danish, glögg in Swedish and Icelandic, and glögi in Estonian and Finnish.  The main classic ingredients are red wine, sugar, spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, cloves, and bitter orange, and optionally also stronger spirits such as vodka, akvavit, or brandy. The history of glögg dates back to the 1500’s when a spiced wine called ‘Hippocras’ was sold by merchants. It was named for Hippocrates and thought to have healing influences over muscle injuries. King Gustav I of Sweden renamed the German version of mulled wine with spices to “glodgad vin” in the early 1600′s.  By the 1800′s “glögg” became the shortened version and it means “to glow.” This glowing physical description is attributed to the sugar that is mixed in the glögg (and what your face does after just one potent drink!).

Jul or Yule
The word Jul or Yule may have come from the word hjul or jól, meaning wheel, which suggests the turning of the seasons and is a pagan symbol for the sun. Only in Scandinavia does the pre-Christian name persist for this holiday. Everywhere else, the word for Christmas has a reference to Christ’s birth.

Juløl or Yule Ale
Even before Christianity came to Scandinavia, the winter solstice was a time for eating, drinking and revelry. Some believed that intoxication led to communication with the gods. People drank during jul to get in contact with the spirits, who determine the luck for the coming year. Brewing the juløl (Yule ale) was a sacred act with rules and superstitions governing the process. Medieval laws mention that farmers had a duty to observe this ritual of making and blessing the juleøl. Under a penalty of a fine, the farmer and his wife were required to promise to make a certain amount of ale, complete it for first tasting on December 21 and consecrate it on Christmas, with gratitude to Christ and Saint Mary, for good harvest and peace.  The four million people of Norway consume 10 million liters of juleøl every Christmas!

According to ancient religion, the bringer of gifts rides on Thor’s goat or Julbok (Joulupukki in Finnish). Straw goats are now ubiquitous Christmas decorations in Scandinavia. Why straw? It was readily available on the floors (and new straw exchanged for old at this time of year), so there was always straw available to make decorations during the long winter evenings. As straw retains its yellow color, it is also a reminder of the continuity of the cycle of life. New straw was put on the floor for sleeping, and it was traditional in old Norway to give up your bed for the night for the mysterious folk, and to help everyone feel equal.

Keeping the dinner table set with food as an offering to the dead gave rise to modern julebord and Christmas morning koldtbord. The roots of the julebord extend into the agrarian pre-industrial Norway where setting out food on the table all night for the family’s dead who could eat in their leisure while the family slept.

Often the first course of a Jul feast, if an almond is hidden the Julebrod (Christmas porridge or rice pudding), the person who finds it will be married in the new year. It is customary to leave out a bowl porridge for the tomten or nissen on the night before Jul, because it is said that they are easily offended and may seek revenge if they are forgotten at the holiday time. In some traditions, a bowl of porridge is given to the farm animals so they will provide a good harvest.

When autumn threshing was over, the finest sheaf of wheat was set aside for the birds and tied to a tree or a high pole. When the sheaf was secured aloft, the peace of the Christmas was thought to descend. Hanging the julenek is one of the few traditions that persist in and is practiced in its original form.

Mistletoe is found in many traditions, but one is associated with Frigga, a Norse goddess of love and the mother of Balder, the god of the summer sun. Balder had a dream of death which greatly alarmed his mother, for should he die, all life on earth would end. In an attempt to keep this from happening, Frigga went at once to air, fire, water, earth, and every animal and plant seeking a promise that no harm would come to her son, but overlooked the humble mistletoe, which grew neither on the earth nor under the earth, but on apple and oak trees. The evil god Loki made an arrow tip of the mistletoe, gave to the blind god of winter, Hoder, who shot it , striking Balder dead. The sky paled and all things in earth and heaven wept for the sun god. For three days each element tried to bring Balder back to life. He was finally restored by Frigga. It is said the tears she shed for her son turned into the pearly white berries on the mistletoe plant and in her joy Frigga kissed everyone who passed beneath the tree on which it grew. The story ends with a decree that who should ever stand under the humble mistletoe, no harm should befall them, only a kiss, a token of love.

The Norse God Odin rides an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir that can leap great distances.  At Yule, Odin leads a great hunting party through the sky in celebration. Beavvi, the Sami goddess of the sun, rides in a sled enclosed by reindeer antlers in her journey across the sky at the winter solstice. Together, these stories may have given rise to eight reindeer flying through the sky.

While there are clear parallels between contemporary depictions of Santa and his elves with the Sàmi, including short stature, tunics, peaked hats, curved boots, sleighs, and reindeer, the Sàmi do not have this tradition, and it appears to be a 19th century innovation, aided by the Bon Marche department store, Coca-Cola and Disney, and inspired by the 1898 Manitoba expedition that introduced many Americans to the Sàmi culture. In Scandinavia the tradition of the gift-giving Julebok was merged with the mischievous tomte or nisse, and then in turn with St. Nicholas, a hybrid of the Dutch Sinterklaas and the Norses god Odin and Thor. Lapland was first touted as a home for Santa in 1927, when radio personality Markus Rautio said on his popular Finnish program, The Children’s Hour, that Santa lived on “Ear Mountain” outside Rovaniemi. The myth was given a boost in the 1980s, with the BBC’s Search for Santa program that claimed Father Christmas had a Finnish base. “Santa Holidays” to Finland emerged as a more recent phenomenon, mostly among other Europeans.

Santa Lucia and Freya
Lucia was a young Christian martyr on the island of Sicily who is said to have given away her dowry to buy food for her village. Later, she was said to be a medieval saint who brought food to the village in Värmland. Because she was seen crossing Lake Vänern clothed in white and with a crown of light encircling her head, the modern Lucia dresses in white and wears a crown with lighted candles. She was adopted by the Swedes because her saint day was December 13, which in the old Julian calendar was the winter solstice (thereby supplanting Freya, the goddess of love and fertility).  The tradition of starboys who often accompany the Lucia dates back to the time when boys went from door to door playing tricks, singing and begging for money to celebrate the winter solstice.

Tjuondag Jul or St. Knut’s Day 
On January 13th, Tjugondag jul (“Twentieth Day Yule”), or Tjugondag Knut, is a traditional festival celebrated in Sweden and Finland. Christmas trees are taken down and the candies and cookies that decorated the tree are eaten. In old tradition still living in parts of Finland, the men dressed as Nuuttipukki (Yule goats) would visit and demand food and alcohol. From Noormarkku comes this proverb: Hyvä Tuomas joulun tua, paha Knuuti poijes viä or “Good Thomas brings the Christmas, evil Knut takes it away.”

Yule Candles
Candles have been used since ancient times to celebrate the return of the light and “birth of the sun.” Candle-making followed slaughtering in the harvest year, as the tallow (animal fat) became available. Farmers used candle stubs to wax their tools and housewives used stubs to make salves and medicines. In medieval times, a legend arose about the Christ child wandering the world on Christmas Eve. Devout Christians placed candles in their windows to invite him in. The Lutheran tradition of an Advent Wreath includes four candles for the four weeks of advent. Traditionally, three of the candles are purple, and represent prayer, penance and preparation. The fourth is pink, for rejoicing. In some traditions, a solitary white candle is placed in the middle of the wreath and represents Christ as the light of the world. In the Swedish Santa Lucia tradition, a procession is headed by one girl wearing a crown of candles, while others in the procession hold a single candle each.

Yule Ghosts
The dead were thought to haunt the living around the time of the winter solstice. People left food and drink out on Christmas night for the Yule ghosts. One had to be tidy; if other items were left out, they could be taken by the ghosts! People often gave up their beds for the flock of people riding through the air on horseback. Odin was leader of the band. In Norway today, candles are lit on the gravestones on Christmas Eve. Other magical things happened around midnight on the winter solstice or Yule. Animals were thought to be given the gift of speech.


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